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Durham Regional Theatre’s Walk Two Moons Is a Valiant Effort that Comes Up Short

walktwomoonsposter-durham-regional-theatre2016Durham Regional Theatre’s production of Tom Arvetis’ Walk Two Moons has three very bright spots: the acting of Joy Harrell-Goff (as Sugar Hiddle), that of Kent Lewis (as Gramps Hiddle), and that of director Jennifer Justice (as Gram Hiddle). Beyond those elements, there are drawbacks (some inevitable) that hamper the quality of the production.

Based on Sharon Creech’s Newbery Medal-winning novel by the same name, Walk Two Moons takes place in the present-day, with flashbacks to the past. Gramps is driving from Ohio to Idaho, with Gram riding shot-gun and their granddaughter Sal (played by Jelanie Anderson) in the backseat. The purpose for the trip is to visit Sugar, Sal’s mother. The three hope to reach their destination in time for Sugar’s birthday.

Even though the trip itself is one story, it serves as a framing device for other, interrelated stories that Sal tells as they travel. As she begins the various narratives, the stories are enacted onstage, often with Sal “stepping out” of the car and “stepping into” the action of the stories. The stories center on Sal and her friends and family and on Sal’s friend Phoebe (played by Angelina Katsannis) and her parallel family situation.

Sal’s mother had left her and her father over a year ago; and Phoebe’s mother disappears during one of the early flashbacks. Through the enactment of these interrelated stories, the play explores the themes of love and loss, of reuniting under altered circumstances, of healing and redemption, and of the values of family loyalty and solidarity.

Joy Harrell-Gaff is a delight as Sugar Hiddle. She is Sal’s mother who left the family to head out West. We experience her in the flashbacks of Sal’s stories, often seeming almost as though she is a dream-vision. The character is sweet and tender as she speaks to and interacts with her daughter. It is easy to see why her family loves her so much and misses her, and we easily understand Sal’s desire to pay her this birthday visit.

Jennifer Justice and Kent Lewis are downright loveable as the grandparents who are taking Sal to visit her mother. There is an endearing chemistry between the two and an easy “down-home” charm in their interactions with each other and with Sal. We easily believe that the characters are genuinely interested in Sal’s stories and certainly interested in her well-being.

It is difficult for one person to direct a show and also play a central role. And it is particularly difficult to give direction and support to younger and less experienced actors. Justice has given a solid effort, but this production would definitely have benefited from an extra week or so of rehearsals.

Jelani Anderson’s performance was hampered by occasional problems with lines. It is difficult for an actor to stay focused on the continuity of the scene when struggling with lost or misplaced lines. Additional rehearsal time would have helped. Likewise, additional time would have allowed Anderson to commit more fully to the character’s “realness” and intensity. But a role this large is a challenge to anybody, and Anderson has indeed made an effort.

Angelina Katsanis’ Phoebe Winterbottom had a stiffness and a tendency to “strike a pose” every time she spoke. The character definitely comes across as intense, and that is good. But there is repetitiveness in her poses and a single-level quality to her line delivery that detracts from her performance.

Many of the other characters seem quite uncomfortable onstage. Some are difficult to hear and/or understand; others have problems keeping themselves “open” to the audience. Once again, additional practice could very well have helped, and so would assistance from a director who does not have to divide her attention between directing others and preparing her own major role in the play.

Walk Two Moons is performed in the auditorium at E.K. Powe Elementary School in Durham. The lighting system consists of a follow-spot. Because the action of the play moves back and forth between the downstage-right location of the “car” and the main part of the stage, there are frequent shifts in the lighting. Too often, these shifts were “shaky” and “jumpy.” Hopefully, a bit more practice in the venue will help alleviate this.

The story is endearing, the effort is there, and several of the elements of the production are laudable; but too many elements come up short — this is not a show that we would heartily recommend.

Durham Regional Theatre presents WALK TWO MOONS at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 and 2 p.m. Nov. 6 in the auditorium at E.K. Powe Elementary School, 913 Ninth St., Durham, North Carolina 27705.

TICKETS: $15 ($10 students and seniors), except $7 per person for groups of 10 or more.

BOX OFFICE: 919-286-5717, durhamregionaltheatre@gmail.com, or http://www.durhamregionaltheatre.com/drt-shows/ (scroll down).

SHOW/SEASON: http://www.durhamregionaltheatre.com/drt-shows/.

PRESENTER: http://www.durhamregionaltheatre.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/DurhamFamilyTheatre/.

BLOG: http://www.durhamregionaltheatre.com/drt-blog/.

VENUE: http://powe.dpsnc.net/pages/Powe_Elementary.

MAP/DIRECTIONS: https://www.google.com/maps/.

OTHER LINKS:

Walk Two Moons (1994 book): http://www.sharoncreech.com/books/walk-two-moons (official web page) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walk_Two_Moons (Wikipedia).

Sharon Creech (South Euclid, OH-born novelist): http://www.sharoncreech.com/ (official website) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharon_Creech (Wikipedia).

Walk Two Moons (2011 play): http://www.dramaticpublishing.com/product_info.php?products_id=3701 (Dramatic Publishing).

Study Guide: http://www.primestage.com/files/pdf/resource_guides/resource_guide_walk_two_moons.pdf (Prime Stage Theatre of Pittsburgh, PA).

Tom Arvetis (Chicago playwright): http://www.dramaticpublishing.com/AuthorBio.php?titlelink=11078 (Dramatic Publishing).

Jennifer Justice (Durham, NC director): https://www.facebook.com/jennifer.justice.1029 (Facebook page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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